Wednesday, November 04, 2015

John Barth, The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958)

Here we have John Barth's first two novels, reprinted in one volume (with, it should be noted, several printing errors, including one page in the middle of The End of the Road that is simply missing). I read them. What more can I say?

Barth is known for writing sort of twinned sets of novels, with related stories and themes--The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, Chimera and Letters, Sabbatical and Tidewater Tales—and this is the first such set. Unlike his later work, these are fairly realistic narratives (though one might argue that the characters aren't exactly “realistic”), though especially in The Floating Opera, with the narrator's fixation on the ins and outs of how to tell a story, you can definitely see anticipations of the author's later work. There's an actual “Floating Opera” in the novel, but—as Barth explains in his introduction—it's also a figurative sort of conception: the idea of a boat floating by where a show is being performed, and you can only see and hear bits and pieces as it goes by, and have to get the rest second-hand from people who've seen other parts—yup, you can anticipate the later Barth all right.

Right, so The Floating Opera is about and narrated by a lawyer named Todd Andrews. In particular, it centers around a day some twenty years ago when he woke up and decided, to his delight, that's it! The perfect solution to my problems! I'm going to commit suicide today! Obviously, though, he didn't. So why was he going to, and why did he change his mind? With this as its centerpiece, he tells us about various other events in his life that made him who he is: his affair with a married woman (with her husband's sanction), earlier amorous exploits, his experience fighting in the first World War, his father's suicide, and so on.

It quickly becomes clear that Andrews is not a psychologically normal person. In fact, clinically speaking (IANAP) he's probably a psychopath, not that he goes around cutting up coeds. He is unable to really relate to other people, burying his relations under all this intellectual detritus. He doesn't actually care about his court cases, beyond a kind of detached intellectual curiosity as to whether a given gambit will work or not. He's kind of obnoxious and does bad things, but he's actually not wholly unlikable...well, okay, mostly, but certainly not in the unreflective way of something like Peter Prince or Been Down So Long it Looks like Up to Me or uP, where you feel like the characters are unpleasant because the authors may be a bit unpleasant. Here, it's clearly a very deliberately delineated, character-study sort of unpleasantness. One does achieve a greater level of understanding of the character, as he does of himself, by book's end. And there are other pleasure to the reading as well: his explanation of a farcical court case involving seventeen different contested wills is funny, and the war interlude is extremely striking—I've never seen the experience of battle described in quite this way before.

So, that's The Floating Opera. Quite accomplished for a novel written by a twenty-four-year-old, I'd say. The End of the Road, while similar in many ways, is kind of shockingly different in others. The protagonist is a Jacob Horner. Like Andrews, he is psychologically abnormal, only more so. He has these sort of semi-catatonic periods where he doesn't/can't do or not do anything; a kind of paralysis—and when he DOES have moods, he's kind of helpless as to what he feels and how he acts; he likens this to the weather. He meets a crackpot doctor who takes him on as a case and gives him advice on how to get better. As part of his treatment, he is instructed to get a job teaching grammar (yes, it sounds bizarre—it's only “realistic” in a very limited sense). He does this and meets a fellow teacher and his wife who have a strange relationship, and he—surprise!—sleep with the wife. This has fallout. One of the central themes seems to be that, with emotions taking a back seat to this cold, overactive “reason,” you can justify anything and its opposite. The philosophizing the characters engage in isn't coherent, but that's the point, really. It's not meant to be. Or rather, it's meant not to be. Anyway, the consequences are tragic.

The narrative structure here is notably less sophisticated than The Floating Opera, but that's not the main concern here. No, the main concern is that all the characters in this novel—basically, Horner and the couple, Joe and Rennie Morgan—are incredibly repellent. When I characterized Andrews as “not wholly unlikable,” it's very possible that that was a retrospective judgment made by way of contrast. I know that using this as cause to dismiss the book makes me a Bad Reader—you've got to think about these things, not just use them as an excuse to shut off critical thinking—but man, it's hard. I would not call this a fun novel to read. I mean, it's all very well-executed—Barth certainly accomplished what he intended to accomplish—but man.

To be honest, I mainly read these novels because at some point I have ambitions of reading Letters, which features characters from all of Barth's previous books to that point, and it seemed like it wouldn't hurt therefore to read all of those first. Now, the only one left is Chimera, which will probably be quite interesting in itself. As for these, if you're reading them just for kicks, I'd stop after The Floating Opera.


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